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A GoFundMe page has been set up to help with Bailey Foley's medical expenses. To donate, go here.

Football.

It was the guilty-until-proven-innocent culprit in my mind when I first heard about a Fortuna High School football player collapsing on the sidelines Friday night.

Bailey Foley, a senior running back and linebacker for the Huskies, complained of cramps and then suffered seizures at the close of the game at Cardinal Newman.

Foley, 17 and a two-sport athlete for the Huskies who plays second base for the baseball team in the spring, remained in a medically induced coma at Santa Rosa Memorial on Tuesday as he continued to fight off pneumonia and a fever. An MRI taken Sunday revealed Foley had suffered a stroke. Part of his skull was removed to alleviate swelling. It’s unclear what kind of damage his brain and body have sustained.

Foley’s mom, Tara Johnson, is under almost unimaginable pressure to comprehend. To comprehend what happened to her younger son, to comprehend how to help him through it and to comprehend the best way forward for everyone involved.

What she can’t understand at this stage is whether football played a role. But she has a guess.

Johnson said doctors told her that her son’s stroke was caused by a hematoma. And Johnson believes that a hit caused the hematoma.

“It had to have been a certain hit at some point,” she said.

Foley had a suspected concussion when he was about 12, she said, but no other significant injuries.

Fortuna High football coach Mike Benbow told Press Democrat reporter Julie Johnson on Saturday that Foley is a “go-getter, a hard worker, someone who goes hard all the time.”

That sounds like her boy, Johnson said.

“He rides dirt bikes,” she said. “He’s very outdoorsy, always camping and fishing.”

But on Tuesday, he couldn’t cough under his own power.

Was this football’s fault?

“He’s always played football, since he was old enough to play,” his mother said. “He’s gotten banged up, but never gotten a major one.”

Johnson said she’d be worried and “on edge” watching him play, but she figured that was a mother’s natural response.

“You always think, ‘Wow, you better be careful.’ But that’s what he loved and that’s what he wants to do,” she said. “You don’t really think that this would happen. You can’t have them in a bubble. That’s life.”

But there is growing chorus of those who would argue that it’s not life. That it’s football.

I’ve received emails and calls, links to stories eerily similar to Foley’s.

The National Football League, ruling body of America’s most popular professional sport, has admitted that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that those conditions are likely to emerge at notably younger ages than in the general population.

The NFL didn’t share this information willingly.

It emerged after thousands of former players sued the league, arguing that it had hidden the dangers of concussions from its players.

Whether that plays into the league’s sinking television ratings isn’t clear, but those rating are indeed sinking.

Between 2016 and 2017, television ratings for NFL games were down 8 percent — that’s about 1.4 million viewers.

And the signs are there that football may be losing its grip on us, even at the high school level.

FRIDAY’S SCORES

Cardinal Newman 42, Fortuna 18

Berkeley 20, Santa Rosa 6

Petaluma 55, Montgomery 42

Rancho Cotate 62, St. Mary’s-Albany 0

Analy 42, Maria Carrillo 14

Elsie Allen 26, St. Vincent 9

St. Bernard’s 42, El Molino 20

Ukiah 48, Willits 14

Eureka 41, Fort Bragg 0

South Fork 50, Laytonville 20

Upper Lake 68, Los Molinos 40

Colusa 34, Clear Lake 28

Kelseyville 8, Stellar Prep 0

Cloverdale 14, Berean Christian 7

Lower Lake 19, De Anza 14

According to a 2016-17 survey by the National Federation of High Schools, participation in 11-player football hit its lowest total number — 1,057,400 — since 2004-05. More than 26,000 fewer athletes played football in 2016 than in the previous year, the largest single season drop in two decades.

Locally, Novato High School officials made headlines when they canceled, then later reinstated, varsity football this season after early participation numbers were deemed too low to be safe. The Hornets lost their season opener Saturday 38-0.

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, a middle school named after gridiron legend Vince Lombardi canceled its football season after a five-month search for coaches got zero applicants.

When that made news, potential coaches stepped up and the first practice was scheduled for Monday.

Freshman teams are no longer a certainty and eight-man teams are cropping up where schools once fielded full teams.

Is it because of increasing awareness of the dangers of concussions? Is it because ex-players are being diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease chronic encephalopathy and Lou Gehrig’s disease, or the fact that the NFL can’t seem to go a week without stepping into (or causing) another nightmare of bad publicity?

Or is it because stories like Bailey Foley’s scare people to their core?

I don’t know, but even those who I talked to who know and love the sport feel something slipping away. They can’t not.

“The current trend is concerning,” said Erick Larsen, head coach at Kelseyville High School. “I’ll watch my grandkids play football, but it’s going to take a real effort to change the mindset of folks on that.”

Larsen talks about taking the head out of tackling, following the credo of USA Football’s “Heads Up” program. He calls what he teaches “rugby tackling.”

“Of course I worry about my players’ safety, which is why I’m so adamant about shoulder tackling and ‘Heads Up’ football,’” he said.

“At the high school level it gets communicated by the coaches — it’s about tackling someone and not just the big hit,” he said. “The NFL is different on that mindset.”

Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin was there when Foley went down, but he made it clear he has no understanding of what exactly happened.

“I have coached in this area for a while, I have been involved in the football community for a while, and I have never heard or seen anything like this,” he said. “I have never heard of it in a high school football thing. It’s baffling.”

Cronin’s 9-year-old son plays football. “I’m pretty confident he’s going to be healthy when he’s 60 or 70,” he said.

“In high school football, in Sonoma County, we can’t act like we are NFL speed,” he said. “I just don’t see it the same.”

And Cronin expressed concern that rumors could be leading the charge here, that football may have nothing to do with what happened to Bailey Foley.

“It’s a scary incident; there is an unknown to it,” he said. “You want to find out what happened, truly what the story is behind it.”

Clear Lake High head coach Mark Cory has been coaching the game for 30 years. He remembers when practices were full pads, full speed, day in and day out.

Now, Cory said his kids ran through live drills perhaps twice before the season opener against Colusa High last Friday.

“I could be an old-timer and say that’s too soft but at the same time, it’s where football is going,” he said. “And if we are going to keep football alive, we have to just go with it.”

Cory doesn’t need examples of where football struggles to gain purchase with people these days. He gets it. He knows it’s cringe-inducing when people cheer when someone gets their head knocked off.

“It’s kind of why people go to car races — the crashes,” he said. “Which doesn’t make it OK.”

But the former basketball coach also says that football is special in a way that other sports are not.

“I’m talking about the physical nature of the game and trying to get 11 guys to do the same thing at the same snap of the ball,” he said. “I feel like it teaches them a lot. It’s just a teamwork game.”

And Cory didn’t have to face the uncomfortable question of the day: Would you let your kid play football? His son gravitated toward cross country on his own.

When Cory arrived at Clear Lake two years ago, they were having trouble fielding a squad. It’s hard to say why, but it’s probably fair to say that the inherent dangers played a role. If football went the way of boxing, still out there but certainly not a front-and-center sport, he wouldn’t be surprised.

But that’s hard for a guy who has gotten so much from the sport and who has seen the positive side.

And it’s hard for a guy processing news of a 17-year-old boy lying in a hospital bed.

“It’s been good to me and it’s been good to a lot of kids I’ve coached,” he said. “But, man, if I’m the parent of that kid … ”

It’s hard to argue any game is worth it.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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